Michael Cox



COMMENT | Steward talent drain a priority with Van Gestel set for departure

Marc Van Gestel’s appointment to the role of chief steward in Hong Kong continues the flow from the Racing NSW talent pipeline but is enough being done to ensure the pool won’t run dry in Sydney?

The Sydney stewards room has long been considered the gold standard when it comes to integrity in world racing, so it was no surprise to see Marc Van Gestel poached by the Hong Kong Jockey Club.

Van Gestel will move to Hong Kong after October’s The Everest and after a few months of settling in under the HKJC’s current chief steward Kim Kelly, is expected to transition to the top job early next year.

After more than three decades with RNSW, the last six as chief, Van Gestel will follow a lineage in Hong Kong that can be charted back to his first boss as a cadet, John Schreck, through Kelly and Jamie Stier, making him the fourth straight chief steward to come via the Sydney stewards’ panel.

Terry Bailey – recruited by Schreck to Sydney out of country Queensland as a teenager – had already moved to Hong Kong last year to replace another former Sydney-based stipe Steve Railton.

The Sydney talent production line is impressive but today’s appointments are the fruits born of foundation work decades ago, much of it by Schreck and the then-ruling Australian Jockey Club.

Railton has returned to Sydney, but it has been a mostly one-way flow of talent. It leads to the question of whether Racing NSW executives prioritise stewarding and integrity as much as the Hong Kong Jockey Club decision-makers do.


Chief steward Kim Kelly addresses the media in 2016. (Photo by Kenneth Chan/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)

As well as Van Gestel, in recent years the Sydney panel has lost two officials who would likely have been in line for progression through the ranks, former deputy Wade Birch and rising star Troy Vassallo, but not to Hong Kong; they are now one-two at Greyhound Racing NSW.

Kim Kelly would be a seamless swap for Van Gestel – especially with his trusted lieutenant Railton already in place – but after more than two decades in Hong Kong, 13 in the demanding top job, there might not be a realistic offer that could lure him from a well-deserved retirement in his home state of Queensland.

An appointment like Kelly would not solve the issue at hand though. There is a sense that while prize money grows in New South Wales, the key foundations of integrity, staffing, infrastructure and planning are being neglected.

To be clear, direct, like-for-like comparisons between Hong Kong and New South Wales are unfair. The chief steward position in Hong Kong is a high pressure role; ensuring racing with the biggest per-race betting pools in the world is run safely and fairly. However, the monster betting returns mean those integrity efforts are better resourced than anywhere else in the world. There are two tracks, 88 race meetings, a tick over 800 races held and 22 trainers operating out of two highly controlled locations with club-employed vets.

New South Wales has 112 racetracks, holds more than 5,000 races per year and has around 1,000 trainers scattered around the state.

It’s a very different challenge than the role played by Kelly in Hong Kong and the breadth of it highlights the vulnerability of New South Wales if it is to let resourcing of stewarding slip.

When costs are cut and resources are stretched, standards will invariably slide.


John Schreck pictured in Hong Kong in 2002. (Photo by Dickson Lee/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)

The role of media in holding both participants and officials to account is also under threat; newsrooms have been gutted, and genuine racing coverage deprioritised. Journalists spend more time on form and tipping and less time in the stewards rooms that they were once a fixture in, notepad in hand.

If officials want an example of why well-resourced integrity – including training and succession plans – they only need to look at the same greyhound authority that has poached two of its leading lights.

In 2015 Greyhound Racing New South Wales was rocked by a live-baiting scandal exposed by investigative journalists, which was followed by a state government inquiry and ultimately, an attempted ban of the sport.

Greyhound racing survived and with an emphasis on regulation it has returned to rude wagering health. That in turn has allowed it to lure stewards from racing to chasing.

On Saturday, an advertisement for applications for the role of trainee steward appeared on the Racing NSW website. Hopefully for racing in the state – and the proven HKJC steward pathway – it is a sign that executives can see its importance.



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